Director: Amar Kaushik
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Bhumi Pednekar, Yami Gautam
There is a powerful moment in the movie when Yami Gautam, who plays Pari, a TikTok star, delivers a monologue about the emptiness of vanity, and the relentlessness of the dikhava, the pretensions of beauty. I was struck. Here is a character who is articulating beauty as a vice, but has no compunctions in saying ‘this is me. If it makes me vapid, so be it.’
That, in a movie with a dark-skinned woman and a bald man, the most striking comment on accepting oneself comes from the pretty, fair-skinned woman, is either a narrative coup or just uneven writing. Sadly, it feels like the latter.
Bala, played endearingly and obnoxiously by Ayushmann Khurrana, woos Pari into marriage. He is a bald man pretending with a wig. Bhumi Pednekar plays Latika, the dark-skinned lawyer who is also a fixture in Bala’s life since childhood. There is a lot that is happening. You aren’t entirely sure of Latika’s feelings for Bala, someone who constantly undermined her for her complexion. There is something resembling love, but there’s also deep resentment. You aren’t sure of Bala’s feelings for himself. You aren’t sure of Pari’s feelings for Bala. There is an artless ambiguity to this movie that becomes exhausting.
But there are inventive moments that pepper the lengthy runtime. The director of Bala, Amar Kaushik, tries to innovatively embed a sweet love story into his narrative – that of Bala, and Pari. The entire courting – from first impressions, infatuation, and declaration happens through TikTok (“Babyu aao na suhaag raat ka Tik Tok banate hai”) to the soundtrack of movies of the bygone era- one where conflict was defined by something external; family dispute, class and even, caste. In this movie, it is interesting to weave such references into the story not only because it shows how cinema has captured our collective imaginations such that we cannot imagine basic things like falling in love without cinema, but because in this movie the conflict is internal. It isn’t about parental aggression or class (though Pari and Bala come from different economic backgrounds Pari dismisses this as a point of contention) but one’s self-image that is the villain of this story. Bala’s self-image is purely defined by his hair or lack thereof.
But it is this fixation on his hairless villainy that tires easily. We are told he has tried up to 220 different ways to grow hair on his head including a discussion about transplanting pubic hair onto his head, cow dung, and an onion paste but as we are taken from one method to another boredom blooms.
The hair in this film is a character in and of itself; it gets a voiceover that welcomes you into the story and then pops up here and there to nail point that has been made but in metaphors. It is an exciting cinematic choice that could have flirted with the bizarre but dulls beyond the first half.
Now, it is important to note the profound use of bronzer to darken Bhumi Pednekar’s skin. Using a woman with fair skin to promote the de-stigmatization of dark skin by making her play someone dark-skinned is at best ignorant.
It is essentially saying that you are unable to find dark-skinned talent to play a dark-skinned character. This either means there isn’t dark-skinned talent out there, or there is an unwillingness to discover and propagate that talent. It sure isn’t the former. There is a big difference between writing a progressive story and depicting a progressive story. The latter needs not just conviction but also gumption. This movie lacked gumption.
There is a scene in this movie when Bala is wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘Revolution Resolution’. It’s probably irrelevant but I couldn’t help but read it in context: a movie attempting the former, but whose obsession with the latter killed the groove.